S. Craig Zahler On Ramping Up ‘Bone Tomahawk’
Cinema Junkie / February 18, 2016
"Bone Tomahawk" gets a one-time screening in San Diego on Feb. 21 at the Digital Gym Cinema. Writer-director S. Craig Zahler talks about ramping up his slow-burn horror western.
Welcome back to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast, I'm Beth Accomando. Kurt Russell's been trending on Twitter after being confirmed as part of the cast for the Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2. He'll being playing Star Lord's dad. This follows a claim for starring in Quentin Tarantino western, The Hateful Eight, but Russell also made another western last year, Bone Tomahawk, but because that was a small indie film with limited distribution it received far less attention. And that's a crime because Bone Tomahawk which was in my top three films from last year is a far superior western to Tarantino's film. It's a perfectly calibrated and meticulously crafted film. I saw Bone Tomahawk at the Abertoir Horror Film Festival in Wales because the film never played in San Diego.
But after seeing it on the big screen I knew I had to get a screening here at San Diego, so my fellow film geeks could enjoy it on the big screen. It starts simply enough when a woman doctor tending a prisoner is taken captive.
Scene from Bone Tomahawk:
"You know who did this? "
"There's only one group that hunts with these. "
"Don't have a name.
"Kind of tribe that doesn't have a name? "
"One that doesn't have a language, cave dwellers. "
"You know where they are? "
"I've a general idea. "
"You'll take us to them? "
"I won't. "
"Because you're an Indian? "
"Because I don't want to get killed. "
"You're afraid of your own kind? "
"They are not my kind, they're spoiled bloodline of inbred animals is right beneath their own mother's. "
"Well what are they?
"What do they look like? "
"Man like you would not distinguish them from Indians even though they are something else entirely. " "Why would they tear that stable boy up leave him, but take the others away? "
"They don't need negroes. "
"Do they think they're poisonous?
"You'll show us where they are at? "
"You'll be killed if you enter their territory. "
"That wasn't the question. Show us where they're at. "
"We won't be dissuaded".
Beth Accomando: The cast includes Kurt Russell as the sheriff, Richard Jenkins as his backup deputy. Lili Simmons as the doctor, Patrick Wilson as her husband and Matthew Fox as a kind of gentleman gun slinger. I had a chance to interview writer director S. Craig Zahler about the amazing feature film debut, but before I start the interview let me play another brief scene. This is an exchange between Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox and it shows that despite the horrific turn the story takes at the end, it's also full of rich character humor.
Scene from Bone Tomahawk:
"You watch how you speak to the law, sheriff specially. You're aren't captain. "
"No, I'm the most intelligent man here and I intend to keep us alive. "
"Well you're the most intelligent man here, is that a fact? "
"It is. Sheriff Hunt has a wife. "
"So does Mr. O’Dwyer. "
"And you're a widower. "
"Yeah what is that got to do with anything? "
"Smart men don't get married. "
"Well, that's because no woman wants you. "
Beth Accomando: First of all I just want to tell you that I travel all the way to Wales to the Abertoir Film Festival to see your movie.
S. Craig Zahler: "A pretty well name festival at that, its -
Beth Accomando: Yes, it’s a wonderful little festival. It's not real big, but they pick really great films and I have friends who live in Wales. I've had a chance to go there a couple of times, but I got to see your film there. And it - just floored me. It was great and then I worked very hard to get a screening here in San Diego because it never played here on the big screen.
S. Craig Zahler: It did play in two places I believe in Kansas city so well, I won't go into all the details regarding that, but the theatrical releases are certainly not a priority, it’s a this kind of movie, I don't know how often that is the case, but yeah, I would like to have seen it better pushed in its theatrical release and also just better distributed. I'm from Miami, it didn't play there, it didn't play in Chicago, but it did, it think it - it did play in few places in Kansas city and maybe a couple in Ohio. So that had more to do with deals than an actual strategy, but then again the, the theatrical was - a bigger concern for me and the producer Dallas Sonnier than it was for the people who are actually putting the movie out there.
Beth Accomando: Because it does play so much better on a big screen with an audience.
S. Craig Zahler: Yeah it, it does play well with an audience, I've seen it in a bunch of different places, London and Spain and Texas and Los Angeles and recently in Museum Of Modern Art in New York which is a particularly enjoyable experience for me and had the expected walkouts that I had anticipated. No one did crowd there, a person who lived in New York and has gone to MOMA for a lot of years, but yeah, the laughter is nice, the shock is something I'm probably appreciating more as I've seen the movie you know a million times and lived with it. So I'm really aware of what's going on with the audience, but it’s nice in that way, but also really just spaces.
I'm mean when, one of the reasons that I made a western and I enjoy westerns are, they're adventure pieces and they take you in a different place and put you in a different space. And you're put in that different space in a very different way. If you're sitting in the dark room and its enormous all around you rather than if it’s on your television or on a computer and certainly I've eyes cringed when I've heard people talking about the movie that they watched on their Kindle. I just, I try not to just hit my head against the wall when I hear something like that, but better that people see it and enjoy it in whatever way they they choose than not, but there was definitely no intention or thought in my mind ever of people watching on something the size of an iPad. As my compositions tend to go for wider and even wider than that throughout, you know in a world where people are watching it on tiny things and getting a lot of material where its loaded with close-ups, this is definitely going to be a different experience in that regard on that sort of format. Where really like you're, if you're watching people and the majority of times you're seeing them is in medium shots than wide. That is different if you're watching it on your iPad or on a laptop than if you're watching it on a big screen.
Beth Accomando: Well the other thing too is that, the tension doesn't play the same if you're sitting some place where you can get up, pause it, walk away.
S. Craig Zahler: Oh absolutely.
Beth Accomando: It just doesn't seem fair.
S. Craig Zahler: Yup
Beth Accomando: But I wanted to ask, I didn't see any other features listed to your credit so how do you come out of the gate with a film like Bone Tomahawk with stars like Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson and Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox?
S. Craig Zahler: The task of that script and that's the, that's the simple answer to that question. And I've written a lot at this point in my career probably if you're including you know television pilots and things like that. Probably about forty five screen plays and eight novels. So I have a lot of material out there and at the point that I wrote Bone Tomahawk, I had about twenty pieces auctioned and sold in Hollywood and not seen a single one of them made there. And that's pretty frustrating, I mean it’s nice that I can actually make a living, but I feel like I'm making a living sort of a say theoretical screen writer, because I'm actually just screen play writer when they are not turning into movies, and I went to school and studied cinematography and directing and animation in particular. And had worked as a cinematographer and had that experience and it was pretty comfortable that I could take something forward. And I was going to do a little budget horror movie at the time. When I talked to Dallas Sonnier who is the, he's my manager and friend and the producer of this movie, and in The Incarnation" we made it.
The guy who financed half of the movie out of pocket, when I spoke to him and Juliet Swan at ETA, he said instead of me doing a little budget horror thing could I do another western and I had already written four at that time. Two novels and that was getting published. One had been published and two scripts, both in sold or auctioned. And one auctioned repeatedly before it was sold, so it was something I was comfortable with and wanted to do and I thought played better to my strengths and straight horror and so I wrote Bone Tomahawk. And we got Kurt Russell pretty earlier on. He was, he went to him very early on, at the point Peter Sarsgaard was cast in the role of Arthur O'Dwyer and he was the first person on. And he was known of not liking stuff and then when he liked it, it was seen as a stamp of approval and his representatives are. Kurt Russell's representatives. And so when I had the Peter Sarsgaard stamp of approval because he tends not to like most things I went to Kurt Russell pretty quickly and then he and I had a conversation and he came on board. And we got Richard Jenkins shortly afterwards and they were on this thing for a couple of years really before it happened, but it was the material, and they all responded to it and said a lot of really nice complementary things and that was what that got them all on board. It certainly wasn't a payday that at this point, the movie's doing really, really, really well for the kind of release that it is. So these people are all actually getting a good payday now, but nobody knew whether that would be the case then and certainly you're not necessarily reading a screenplay like that and thinking well this is going to be a monster hit. Or you know really have any idea what can be pulled off for a small budget and then how it would be received, but they just liked the material and wanted to do it and that was the bottom line.
With pretty much everybody in this cast, because no one was getting paid well and a lot of these people were just getting scale.
Beth Accomando: So you don't see any horror westerns, I can only think a couple of the top of my head. Like the Sam Raimi one and [indiscernible] [0:10:25], so what attracted you to putting those two things together and why did you think that would work well?
S. Craig Zahler: It's interesting because I know that a lot of people maybe even the majority of people who've seen it would classify it as a horror western, but I've never seen it that way. I just see it as a western and most of my writing has stark stuff in it. And when the stuff, when it gets dark it goes very dark and some of this is because of my writing process which is I want to surprise myself and I'm trying to elicit emotional reactions from myself and I'm the. , you know, the first person I have in mind when I'm creating something, that's what drives me. So I grew up with Fangoria and have always been interested in horror movies and that sort of stuff. So if you're going to get it dark, be it in a western or a crime piece and I've written a lot more westerns and crime pieces than I have straight horror pieces I wanted to get into territory that is uncomfortable.
And if there is violence I don't want it to just be, somebody is just shot in the head and falls over and or you know someone is stabbed in the chest and tips over on table. I want it to be things that are distinct to the piece that I'm doing in short I want them to be more creative than what I typically see. So that sort of where it comes from and in terms of the mythology, the Troglodytes in Bone Tomahawk, it really came from, and the violence that's in the movie, it really came from me figuring out what I wanted them to do. What made sense to me and what makes sense in this situation, but it wasn't really that I was gearing up for this to be a genre hybrid. That said many people if not most people look at it as a horror western. I just look at it as a western that gets weirder at certain points. And where I've replaced what you know in the 1950's would have just been a native Americans with my own fictional tribes, so that's that element which is you know that [indiscernible] [0:12:30] natural element which is going to make it feel different.
But it wasn't really that conscience effort. Like all of my westerns get this dark and have been classified by people as brutal westerns or dark westerns or horror westerns. And my crime pieces do as well. They go into this terrain so it’s just like when I deal with the violence I want it to be memorable and not something you've seen before and original to the piece I'm creating.
Beth Accomando: Well its certainly was, that's what. I mean you could feel the whole audience when it. , because it's going along and this nice steady kind of slow burn. And when it ramps up it’s like you're, maybe not ramp up maybe it’s like being dropped off at the edge of a cliff it’s what it feels like. It's like wo ho it’s like lose your breath and everything?
S. Craig Zahler: Yeah, I mean that's nice to hear and those were the expectations and or rather the desired effects. I mean I'm not giving people a lot of warning with this stuff. And if you ask people whose going to survive this piece and what's going to happen, no one's really going to know. Like they might know one element of this person survives, and this person doesn't, but the - and the reason I say that is because I don't know. When I start writing these things I can tell you there's a point in writing this piece where every character who survived did not survive and every character who did not survive did survive in my mind as I was going towards this spot. So I'm trying to surprise myself daily which is my writing process and what I'm doing right now is I'm working on a new piece. Its unpredictable in that way and I'm sure somebody predicted something or someone had some idea somewhere, but in general it’s that process of I'm pushing things up and sort of ambushing myself.
And not really a lot of hints or lot of lead ups and then there's obviously very little music in this movie and that also is - its intentional and also an aesthetic choice that I knew I would make it even before I knew what this movie would be. I just wanted people to experience what was there and I didn't want a lot of emotional coaching from a score. Like oh all of this stuff is going to be scary and stuff and scary music. This stuff is sad, let's give you the sad music. If the sad stuff in this movie doesn't work for an audience member, I don't want to underline that fact and make it worse by a bunch of sad music. And I think that it would be the moments in particular you know, Brooder has the couple in the picture and they're certainly some at the end.
Like those, those either work for you or they, they don't and, but I feel the music would make it worse if they didn't. And there's a just - , you know I just have a comfort with the material. And this comes from me being a writer first and foremost and believing that. People have these emotional experiences when they read these words on the page and it wasn't some sad music coming and stuff and sad and there wasn't horror music coming when the stuff was scary. And there are - there's a small amount of that stuff in there, but very little and I just wanted people to see it and not where it was going and have their own genuine reactions to it.
Beth Accomando: I think that one of the things that makes it so good and makes it so adult because there - I feel like there's a lot of people who want to be told how to feel and they get very uncomfortable when the film maker's not telling them like this is the good guy or this is the bad guy, you're supposed to have scared here.
S. Craig Zahler: Yes.
Beth Accomando: And it’s so refreshing to have a film like this?
S. Craig Zahler: Yeah most of the stuff that I do in Bone Tomahawk you get to see in some extent that's you know how the scripts are born in my books. I get into all these zones where there are moment and I don't want to say I suppose anything that's a spoiler and that's definitely going into that territory in this conversation, but people's opinions on Brooder will be divided and always were you know with reading it. Certainly some choices that are made at the, at the very end of the movie are things that would bleach your conversations of you know what would I do in that situation. And those kind of conversations as well as, you know I'm comfortable not explaining a lot about - like I could and I did to the actors so that they would know what they were working with and I could go in great detail about a lot of where they come from and why they are exactly the way they are, but I don't want to because I would rather that people think about those things and wonder about those things. And I think in leaving some ambiguity you make the movie live in a more present way in the minds of the viewers you know long after the movie experience is there. Like if I just went to it and said this is this, this is this, this happened because of this, some of the things that aren't really clear in the movie or you know that are purposely ambiguous, I think it lives a little less. And having you know - having some of that ambiguity and again not really coaching people on stuff and just letting stuff unfold is different. I - you know. I wish more movies were like that and I could make like a recent example I enjoyed the movie Bridge Of Spies quite a bit, I think it was a lot of terrific writing there. There's one scene where the spy has a monologue about being the standup man I he's talking to Tom Hanks. And its beautifully written, its beautifully photographed, it’s extremely well acted and then there is this gigantic sad music going on the entire time. That the entire time I was watching like wow this really didn’t need to be here. The words, the performance, the photography, everything is there and to me that music which is very loud and very heavy handed kind of hurt that scene.
Bridge Of Spies scene:
"I think because of this they stopped the beating and let him live. " Stoikiy muzhik, [indiscernible] [0:18:50] those sort of means like a standing man. standing man. "
S. Craig Zahler: And so this is obviously you know a master craftsman at work, but that's the kind of thing where I just wish he trusted the words on the page and the performers and the mood with the lighting and everything that was there because if you take out that music - that scene is excellent. And with that music that scene is being spoon fed to me. So it’s interesting like that, the level of comfort people do or don't have with a lot of that stuff. Like I would say contrarily I just saw Room and that has a lot of really great subtle choices. And letting the audience come to certain conclusions and think about things, kind of right before the characters do or giving the audience a sucker punch like. I was more impressed by that movie than anything I've seen in a really, really long time and thought that made a lot of great choices, in writing, in performance and shot selection. Really, really across the board in that one.
Beth Accomando: I find it interesting you said purposefully ambiguous because I think that's a huge difference. A lot of times you see films and you feel like you're not being told things because the film makers don't know how to lay out that information or they haven't though it through, but I never felt that when I got to the end of the film I didn't feel like "oh I feel short changed and then satisfied because you didn't explain this" because I felt like you knew what was going on or you had the information and I only got the information like I needed for the narrative to play out. And I didn't feel cheated or like you didn't know what was going on. And I think there's a big difference in films where you feel like they're just cheating the audience because they go 'ahhh' you know I don't want to go into that?
S. Craig Zahler: Yeah, no and that's the ideal thing. I would say, we did almost no testing for this movie. The one thing from me that was really useful with testing because I went into this and I knew there are going to be people, "well it’s just TV, it’s so boring" and then there are people like, "holy shit this is really disgusting and I don't want to watch it. " and the there'll be people who are really are onboard and maybe wish it was a little faster pace and the people who are completely onboard and are so happy that its paced the way it is. And so it broke down into those groups and to this day those are the groups for this movie, but we did, we did really limited testing. We just kind of couple of tests, really the value for me there was really one thing and that was, it was something that people don't understand.
And it was really simple. There were a couple of scenes that were similarly lit and went back to back and a couple of people thought they were in the same location. I said okay let's put it in some kind of a establishing shots so that they break these up. So that no one confuses them for the same location. And that was kind of it. We looked at the movie or you know as a whole over that, but this is - I mean really if this went to the testing process that's normal in Hollywood. This is a really different movie and what I could do and probably do in ten hours in a room with - you know. One of the editors, one of the great editors of the movie, there Greg D'Auria or Fred Raskin is "I could turn this into a commercial, a much more commercial movie". First turn it into a 90 minute thing, get rid of the tons of conversation, put in a lot of music, tighten up the shots because of something you can do in post production. And then in that version what would happen is people who love it would like it less. The people would think it’s really good would like it less.
The people who hate it might think its mediocre, like that's what would happen and so what you're doing with a lot of that stuff when you over explain things and really just trying making it, it’s fast moving, it’s possible and you know trim the sad and as - as people would say with all the sordid stuff, because I think you are really, you're really just trying to keep in those people who might think the movie is mediocre or terrible. And I don't care about those people. Like those aren't, that's not the audience and you know this is a little bit the attitude that I come with. As like you know there's a metal head whose played you know like death metal and all those sort of -, but this isn't for everybody. You don't go out and write music like that and play music like that and think like "oh, but someday Carnegie Hall. “Though actually there was a death metal band called [indiscernible] [0:23:36] that played at Carnegie Hall, but I digress.
The point being I'm concerned with making the best version of what I set out to make. And almost nothing that I've ever done in my life do I think would appeal to ninety you know ninety percent of the people out there. And I'm comfortable with ambiguity, I'm comfortable with not, gratifying the audience completely, though I do want to give them something and I think. You can go over too much with not giving the audience any of what they want and I think that's not a great experience, but I think also giving the audience everything that they want is not a great experience.
Beth Accomando: I want to talk to you about the structure a little bit because it is a slow burn, the thing that I really appreciated about that. I know you said that you didn't think of it as a conventionally as a horror film, but a lot of horror films I think what they fail at is the forget that if you care about the characters, you were much more engaged in the story and the tension feels much more palatable. So I felt the slow burn was this, almost a distraction. That you were almost without me realizing it, I was growing very attached to all these people. And so when it ramps up suddenly I'm on the edge of my seat going wait a minute I'd like these guys, I don't want anything bad to happen to them and now there's that danger that it really could.
S. Craig Zahler: Absolutely, and that's probably a core element of my aesthetics in all the things that I do, which is spend the time to put the care into them and the love into them and this is something that has come up in reviews now, because a couple of westerns have come out since Bone Tomahawk came out, but this is my - like you know my number one criticism for The Revenant which I thought was terrible and the worse movie I've seen in many years. I just didn't care about that guy at all. And I think DiCaprio is a very good actor, but I just don't think there was any material for him to work with. And there was no love in that character in terms of put in there by the people, who wrote it and conceived of it, and there's no humor and I don't really get a sense of a life there.
And so with all of that stuff lacking there's not really a reason for me to care, you're watching the person struggle so maybe there'd be admiration for going through all of these sorts of things, but in that movie in particular there's very, very limited interaction with other people with that protagonist. And I couldn't tell you anything that person ever did other than that he has a little bit of affection for Native Americans, so this you kind of told because when he's on screen with the one who he's closest with, he sort of nasty to him. So you're just kind of spoon fed that well, but he's open minded.
And that's supposed to kind of carry you through this tedious movie of highly technical directing and obviously it didn't work for me and this is the same like with almost all the stuff I like, you can spend time with the character. Maybe have some idea with the lives of outside the events of the movie you know in the case of a you know a great movie like Deliverance or Wild Bunch, you're also getting a sense of the group developing and their dynamic and not just the character are because maybe - in my case I read a lot of strong characters so I'm not, his concern was giving them giant arcs, but just watching that person deal with these situations, but you can have the group arc in a certain way the way they do in Deliverance, they do in Wild Bunch, they do it in Prince Of The City. You know these are really good examples of just you know watching that group come together and really carrying a lot about a lot of them, but also having a real sense of who these people are outside of immediate events of this movie.
Like what they might actually do on you know days where terrible events aren't occurring. So it’s a tough saying in terms of being a writer and selling pieces in Hollywood because in general people are always looking at those character scenes and scenes that don't advance that the plot as the target scenes like get rid of this stuff because it doesn't advance the plot. And my feeling is the scenes that don't advance the plot should be better than the ones that do or at least as good and so a lot of those scenes are much flavorful scenes. Certainly out of Bone Tomahawk you can get rid of the scene where you know most of the scene where they talking about corn chowder, scene with Chicory's talking about how to read a book in a bathtub.
Scene from Bone Tomahawk:
"Can you read a book in the bath? "
"I understand why you're asking. "
"Well I'm asking is can you zip in the bathtub full of hot water and read a book? "
"I never tried. "
"Well I read about people doing' it all the time and every time I tried it I ruined the book Splashed water on it, get it wet, turned the pages, have even dropped some here. "
"Why you're determined to read literature while taking' a bath? "
"Well it's just, nothing' feels better than sitting' that tub. Well it just gets dull looking' at your toes the whole time. "
"I should get a music stand like the kind an orchestra fella uses or the choir master. "
"Well that's an idea. "
"You put your book on that, right next to the tub, keep a towel there so you can dry your fingers you know before you turn the pages. "
"First thing I'm going to do when I get back is I'm going to go get me one of those stands. "
S. Craig Zahler: To me its start like losing the heart of this piece and why I did it and so everyone thought this stuff was going to go by the wayside before we got to the finished product. I didn't actually have interest in making the version of the movie where that stuff on the wayside. It’s like you said I mean you've said exactly what I hoped to hear, is when you get into the peril you really care about these people. And I don't you know like, watching The Revenant, when the bear attack happens it’s you know aggressive, but I don't, I certainly didn't care at all, but you know, I know it’s a movie that a lot of people like, but I've also to a lot of people who feel about it the way that I do and it’s kind of this other example of, "hmm you know wow, they really didn't put much love into these characters". And much of a sense of anything outside this immediate ordeal. That's something that's informs my static like if I don't care about them when I'm writing them, there's no way I could think that somebody else will care about them when they are sitting there watching them.
Obviously you have these characters on the page and its Richard Jenkins said when I first met him, said you know, he said actually "these aren't characters on a page, these are I think people" and Kurt's only comment was "if you don't know what to do with these characters the way they are written you're a terrible actor and should retire. " And there's a lot of information on the page because I'm a novelist in the prose is more detailed than the average and so you take those characters and you start putting in performers like Richard Jenkins and Kurt Russell and David Arquette and Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox and you know it just makes them all that richer.
Beth Accomando: Well Richard Jenkins character I really loved because again you do surprise us with him because you kind of dismiss him early on. You think like oh he's a bit of a doddering old guy and he'd probably be a pain to take along on the trip and it completely turns around as you go on the journey with him and you start to appreciate him a lot more.
S. Craig Zahler: Such nice to hear it, it is interesting. I saw one review was you really kind of nailed it and because a lot of people would just "oh, he's the goofiest, he's the older guy," in general that character's singled out as most people's favorite and he was the writer's darling when I wrote him. It has the lion's share of the best lines.
Scene from Bone Tomahawk:
"It’s the official opinion of the backup deputy that his manner was suspicious. "
S. Craig Zahler: But he's a little bit more complicated, he's not - When people say he's a simpleton that's simplifying it. And I saw one review some place that said this guy's a brilliant imbecile or a moronic genius. I think that's more the tone like this guy knew stuff. He's also been through a lot of stuff, I mean there's a lot of character history with him that I talked about with Richard Jenkins and Richard Jenkins brought a ton of stuff to that role. And there's more to him than that, there is the wit there that is not the wit of an imbecile or the simpleton, but he's older and his thoughts are less clear and he's had some time in a kind of drifting and he's damaged by his experiences in a civil war. So all that stuff is there and, but there is the moments of clarity where he sees things that other people don't or says things that other people might be just think what would it say. So yeah I really, I think he's absolutely terrific and was great to work with and I'm happy that he's received the kind of notice that he has for it. He's does a great job and yeah I think he's sometimes I'll see people like,"oh he's funny, he's the imbecile," and I'm like, "hmm" he's more than that", if you listen to everything that he's saying and kind of add up the pieces of the puzzle that I give you and that he gives you a gradually dropped movie.
Beth Accomando: Well it reminded me a little bit. Although they are really very different films, but he reminded me a little bit of what Howard Hawks did in Rio where he took the characters that had kind of been shunned and high noon, I think it’s the cripple, the drunk and the young kid and puts them in the key positions. What I found with your film without giving away anything from the end, but it seems like you take some of these characters that are not necessarily allowed kind of the top position in a western. Like this old guy, a woman doctor, someone whose crippled and they really surprise you in terms of the roles that they end up playing in this.
S. Craig Zahler: Yeah I mean that's certainly, certainly I'm putting a lot of pieces on the board when I begin and I don't know necessarily where they are all going to go, but there are yeah and some of that is just as good as some of scenes of the movie which aren't really the things I like to articulate. I'd rather people discover it for themselves or come up with their own personal interpretation. That wasn't my intention because everyone has their own experience with you know with art and its valid, but yeah I'm interested in that group dynamic and certainly if it were four macho guys going out with tons of weaponry and absolutely ready for this, it’s a little different than the thing that I set in motion here.
Rio Bravo, I remember enjoying that movie, though I've not seen it in probably twenty years so I couldn't tell you any overlap it does or doesn't have. I'm a weird like thirty five millimeter revival house purist so I tend to just see stuff when it comes around. And the last time I saw that was it was about twenty years ago.
Beth Accomando: Interesting you shot this in 21 days that seems like a pretty fast turnaround.
S. Craig Zahler: Yeah that was the situation we had and by the end - we've gone through so many versions of this movie that almost happens, the casts were changing, though Richard and Kurt were pretty much always there. We had a lot of versions collapse, we originally were scouting New Mexico and that version and then there was Utah version discussed and we went out and scouted those locations. We are on a way with that one and that collapsed, then there was a Romania version discussed and that collapsed. And then - by the time it got to this one we knew was really our last shot with keeping all these actors around who had been for the period of time. My manager who is the producer of movie Dallas Sonnier basically wrote a check for half of this movie and then the rest of the money came from, so did foreign sales. There wasn't actually a single company in this country that put money into this movie and a few had some interest in it, but they wanted the creative control that I wasn't willing to do. I would just not make the movie if I have to turn over that much authority to somebody.
And that was how I got going, but the - you know it’s one of these things where it will led to me having the amount of control that most first time directors do not have and it also led to shooting the movie in probably half of the amount of time you know we really would have wanted. So there is a lot of stuff in there where people you know their nearly in and out of the gates, we're just moving on. We're not trying to you know, O. K this is really good, well let's have fun and play around with it. That didn't happen. You know the scene where Chicory's talking about reading a book in the bathtub, pretty sure you're looking at the first take, and I know we did two takes of that and that was it. And so there was a lot of stuff like that where when I knew I had something that was good or very good we'd move on. And you know and need to do it quickly and certainly you know I made some mistakes, but a lot more right decisions in my thinking in that, it all came together and considering the speed. I think it’s something to be able to say that you made a movie that's this ambitious as your first feature and you're walking away eighty percent happy with it. Which is what, which is about how happy I am with it with the piece.
Beth Accomando: And how much did it end up costing?
S. Craig Zahler: It was 1. 8 million dollars.
Beth Accomando: It's amazing.
S. Craig Zahler: Yeah. Not a lot of money, a lot of scrambling and in terms of a lot of the key crew positions. The production designer Freddy Waff and Seth [indiscernible] [0:38:04] who's doing costumes, a lot of these people were excited by this material itself. So there was that and in the way that we got this really good cast that probably misleads people in terms of what they think the budget might have been. We also had a lot of people who were very excited about this material and busting their ass. I mean the costume, costumes were being done literally in the parking lot of the hotel that I was staying in. In [indiscernible] [0:38:32] California.
Like that kind of stuff was going on, that's all that we could do. The major location scouts for the movie was me and I went out day and day trying to find what I wanted and still probably the only one I'm least satisfied with the movie. I had a very specific geographical progression , from scene to scene and its really clear in the script and it’s in the movie. We've got some of those things, but a lot of the stuff I wanted didn't exist in the zone for Los Angeles. And if we were shooting outside the zone then we have all these financial penalties that would have resulted in us losing days. So it’s one of these things, that its very directly connected to the money in terms of that one element being the one that I'm certainly least happy with. I think the production designer locations is really good, astonishing considering the budget, but we just couldn't physically get to all of the right exterior locations I had originally envisioned.
Beth Accomando: So you had a background in cinematography, what were you going after in terms of how you wanted the film to look?
S. Craig Zahler: The second editor on the movie Greg D'Auria put it really well and succinctly when he said that my style is an anti-style. and I worked as a cinematographer on low budget things and the first time directors and saw people you know really really trying to you know go out and do all the showy stuff, and things that I think I kind of calling attention to the director and the camera. And for me are actually distracting you from the content of the movie. So this sort of your the one with my philosophy of why there's so little music in the movie. I really wanted to get on the set and capture this performances, and I wanted a lot of cuts to not be there and noticeable and there's very. There’s an idea that I had that would say again sort of in the 75-80 percent zone, I was able to carry off which is motivating most of the edits with the looks of characters.
So you'll see a scene like when Brooder is setting the bells around the camp, that's the scene that's a perfectly done in the style where pretty much every time you cutting, it’s because Chicory who's the protagonist in that scene, I have him set as the anchor, he's looking and so all of the edits are when he's looking. It’s not so much that I was sitting in the editing room with the editors and "well we want to see this now. Ah, let's just show this a little while," Its motivated by what the actors are doing and its weird. Like I've never heard anyone articulate this in this way. Other people must have done this maybe not so strictly, but this was the idea. It was, we had a ton of movie you get in a small time, really pick your person who's the focus of this scene and usually it was pretty clear how with exceptions some of the action beats from the script and then have that person, be it horses stumbling along and he pauses and he looks down at something. And then he's sees what he's looking at, and then occasionally breaking from all that intimate, but a pretty steady held hand work to go to some water vistas to give you a little bit of this - to give you a little bit of perspective and to give you a little bit of meeting room from all of that close stuff.
So it’s something where it’s really stylistically, I was going for style that wouldn't be noticed I think in a way that makes it more noticed. My preference for medium shots over close-ups is also something that's pretty different. I think that actors have a couple of great emotive tools, one of the things obviously they're face in particularly their eyes, but hands I think are really important and if you watched that you know there's a monologue about flea circuit in there. I suppose a lot of great stuff going on, that performers hands. And that's kind of all throughout this movie, I can point to little spots where I think a good chunk of the performance, you're seeing with their hands and so if you get used to a lot of close-ups and all of a sudden you're cutting to close of the hands, cutting to a wider shot, you feel it. And additional I wanted to have this thing where I felt like a realistic proximity. Like you're not usually looking at somebody's face from four inches away unless you're intimate with that person. So again its, it was this style of this natural kind of camera distance as opposed to jammed up in people's faces and looking at the floors.
Seeing their hands and they're gesturing when they speak because when you speak to somebody and they gesture, you see their hands. So was really trying to be the style where it wouldn't be noticed, but I think because a lot of these choices are you know, in some ways have more to do with movies that are happening in the 50's and the 70's than now. It winds up scene being stylized this way and these not having needed it to me is, I'm not putting something that I think is artificial in the movie, but to other people this is a very strong style choice you know that makes it all the more starker, you know so that's, that was the basic approach.
But the reference point for me were, you know my favorite director Sidney Lumet and this is a guy who style fluctuates depending on the movie, sometimes the stuff is pretty stylized and sometimes it’s not at all, but I feel like his material always about what the performers are doing on the set and the script. And capturing it in an effective way, but you know guys like [indiscernible] [0:44:25] or Larry Clark, John Cassavetes, Takeshi Kitano, like a lot of these people that were like a little more relaxed natural thing as opposed to slow motion and super tight close-ups and all that sort of stuff.
Beth Accomando: Well also for your film it seems like the wider shots allow the dynamic of the group and also the relation to the environment which seems important.
S. Craig Zahler: Yes, yeah the environment, those were - I kind of setup apart from the different kind of shots and I labeled those - it’s like these are the paintings that were putting their where you really get a sense of that environment that they're in, where everyone is, because that other stuff is mostly closer in, but yeah seeing these people kind of small and the landscape gives you a little bit sense of just the spaces that were out there and how you know there's the four of them, how like lonely this small group is moving across this unknown frontier.
Beth Accomando: And how was it working with Kurt Russell, because he seems like such an underappreciated actor to me. He should have like - armfuls of awards I think, he doesn't?
S. Craig Zahler: We had some disagreements over the piece, for the most part it was good working with him. He more than, some of the other actor who - , lot of them have experience with shooting TV and it was moving at that speed. He was unhappy with that and you know let me know, but also championing the piece and came onboard, I mean I, his work in this thing I think it terrific. Certainly I would hold up his final scenes in this movie as some of the best stuff I have ever seen he do. We saw, we were like minded in a lot of stuff, but not in other scenes and we had our disagreements. And some of the disagreements like in particular in the final scene in the movie led to some of the best work. The guy has a great voice and really sits into that sort of world.
Scene from Bone Tomahawk:
"You had no cause. "
"Those men were scouts for the raiding party or thieves. "
"You don't know that and I wanted to get information from them in any case. "
"They wouldn't have told you the correct year much less anything else. "
"I know how to interrogate a man. "
"He's your assistant. "
"We need to pack up and make cold camp somewhere else, some place defensible. If you want to question my morals, do it later. "
"There aren't any other question. "
S. Craig Zahler: And I think his work in this is terrific, it’s interesting because I see - you know when people talk about him, they say you know its Kurt Russell role or he's doing what he does, and this to me is subtler work and obviously directed to my taste and even more so when I'm in the editing room and picking all the moments. And my case is a subtlety with performance, so I would rather have ninety five percent of the stuff a little bit under than you know than even have like ten percent of it over, because I think most acting that I dislike is overacting, but keeping it real and keeping it subtle is more to my taste.
He does a lot of, he's a lot of really good stuff here. It wasn't always easy working with him, a lot of the times it was enjoyable, but in the end I think, I think this is you know one of my favorite performance to say I’m. I think he's great in Dark Blue and I really liked him in Death Proof as well, but there are a handful of scenes in this movie. I'll throw them against any scenes of his in anything else again that makes sense because I'm directing him and then choosing all my favorite moments in the editing room with the editors, so it is to my taste, but I think he is particular good in this.
Beth Accomando: And without giving anything away I did want to ask you about how you approached using violence in a film because I think a lot of times filmmakers don't know to use violence in an effective manner. So kind of what was your approach, you had mentioned about you wanting to catch people off guard or to shock them. So how did you kind of tackle it?
S. Craig Zahler: There's violence in this movie and then there's extreme graphic violence. So I'll go to the extreme graphic violence and assume that's what you're more interested in hearing about. My approach was handle it exactly the same way I handle talking about corn chowder. And to show it real.
Scene from Bone Tomahawk:
"You see any activity in there? "
S. Craig Zahler: And that's something that a lot of people have commented on and really understood just how not Hollywood those are in presentation. Like I'm not going in for a lot of close-ups, there's not a lot of slow motion. There's no music going on during that awful stuff and it just happens in front of you. This is the way, like when you see awful crap that it is. I had a relative in the emergency room a few weeks ago. And I was stuck there with her for twenty five hours and I saw you know a lot of awful stuff, but I didn't go close-up on it. And there was no scary music playing, it was just there. So that was my approach, don't treat this stuff any differently than someone talking about corn chowder or how to read a book in a bathtub. Just show it and the focus for the most violence scene that people talk about or the reactions of the people who where there. If you actually broke down that scene and what you're looking at most of the time, it is the main character who you've been with for a ton of the movie reacting to or rather than just watching all of the violence happen. And the violence that's happening, you're seeing all of that stuff from the perspective of that person and from the distance of that person. Where it's like I think there's one exception where technically we just couldn't just get it that way, but that's the idea, it’s still a movie about these characters and what they're experiencing and the audience seeing these things, be their humorous or sad or terrifying through the eyes of the character and not losing the focus. So I think, I think one of the reasons where people say you know there's this giant genre jump in this major, this hard turn left, but it still feels cohesive. It's because it doesn't actually change, like what's happening on screen changes in terms of the content of what we were shooting, but it’s still about the same characters that it was about before. And I don't lose sight of that to go into some super tight close-ups or CG you know all this computer generated war - all that stuff is done practically on set. It was just, its tangible in that way. And that was I hope - I enjoy Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento stuff. Like I grew up on you know that Italian gore stuff and that stuff is terrific, but its different and you don't really care about the people in quite the same way.
And it’s very much about cool atmosphere and good music and gore set pieces you know, less so it is than it is about a bunch of characters trying to do something and your watching them weather this journey and you really want them to survive. Like you know in a lot of horror movies like you're looking forward to the violence. And if Bone Tomahawk is working for you in a right way you should be dreading what's coming up rather than like I hope I see the horrible things happen to all the people that I care about.
Beth Accomando: It's a hard film to describe sometimes because of the - it doesn't meet conventional expectation which is the good thing about it, but I think somebody had asked me, "well what kind of a horror film is it? " And I said, "maybe the choice of words I should have used is its horrific at times as opposed to a horror film. "
S. Craig Zahler: And that's how I see it. Again people call them horror western fine like - people call it a horror movie fine. I - a good comparison is the band Motorhead. It's a band I enjoy, I'm a metal head, I always saw to them in the metal context, punks really like this band. They think of them in the punk context, you talk to Motorhead or Lemmy you know or [indiscernible] [0:53:09] you would say they're a rock band. And so, but that the metal heads say that they're metal and that the punk say that they're punk that's just means its delivering in different areas and maybe isn't exactly like something you've seen before, which was the case of that band when they arrived and what they're doing which you know the tempos are playing out and they're rolling double bass and all that stuff.
So with Bone Tomahawk yeah I think a brutal western or horrific western all that sort of stuff, but if someone's says it’s a horror western that's fine. If someone says it’s a law movie that's fine. I just. you know when I think of movies that are sort of similar, with a sort of similar experience for me in some ways like Deliverance is one that comes to mind. I've never really described that as a horror movie, but certainly you watch and stuff in that movie that's its horrifying and traumatizing and you're going on a journey with this group of guys that has an interesting dynamic. And so it’s just that and however people describe it and the fact that people have a hard time describing it to me it’s so much satisfying and that it means I've done something a little bit different.
Beth Accomando: Well I think you have, I understand you have a lot of un-produced screen plays and I hope that having this film out there will start making some people look at those because I would love to see something else from you soon.
S. Craig Zahler: Yeah, thank you. I have probably about twenty something pages away from the end of a script. I will. should either be my second or third movie as a director while we're taking around movie that will either be a script that will either be second or third movie as a director. We'll see which one lands first and I have some other stuff moving forward. It's tough because this movie as an indie has a day and day release. Like we've made our money back many, many, many times over. It's doing really, really well. The critical response was terrific. It was like you know, number one indie on iTunes last week and I think number five or six movie there. And so and this is four months after the release, so it’s doing really, really well, but if you're in Hollywood and gearing up for forty of fifty or sixty million dollar movies you know, I don't know what conclusions you draw from this. Like this movie is generating a lot of conversation and is doing very well in the space that it’s in, but if as the studios move more and more towards just making gigantic movies, I don't know that this gives them that much comfort you know. And so that's the thing, like I come at this - which is you know with the hope that a lot of my other stuff goes and obviously I keep pushing stuff forward even in the year since making Bone Tomahawk. I've auctioned a bunch of others so I'm at twenty four and probably by the end of next month I'll probably be up to twenty seven different pieces. And I would really like to see some of them made, I just don't know what lessons will be learned if people are like we want to make a hundred million dollar movie and know that it will definitely make a hundred and fifty or two hundred million dollars.
I don't know what people will conclude from this, from a really successful critically acclaimed, but certainly divisive in some circles indie. So I hope to get stuff out there, I hope other pieces of mine are made by other people, but that's not stuff I'm counting on. I'm counting on just making my own and getting the talent on board and continuing to make my own.
Beth Accomando: Well and keep that creative control because it does do something different and I know that as you get more money to make a film which can make certain things easier it means there is more people looking over your shoulders saying "yeah maybe you shouldn't do it because. "
S. Craig Zahler: Yeah, no I've already got a couple of offers and it’s not - I'm not interested in something where I might put a year of my life or a year and a half or two years and then some dude is just going to say this is got to change. No, no committee is ever letting Bone Tomahawk throw, like - there's the amount of material that can be removed to make a faster pace, the amount of music that can be added, tightening up all these shots like it - it doesn't get through and I understand that those are the movies. Again those are the movies will - is done that way will bring back, would interest some of those people who hated the movie and get them to think its mediocre, but you know that's now why I do this. Like I'm not out there to make the movie that everybody else is making. Or write the books that everybody else is writing, like I have a different thing that I want to do. And that's what I want to get out there so I'm comfortable if I'm stuck in a zone of making movies that are two, three, four million dollars, but I maintain control, I will continue to conceive movies that are in that budget range. That's what I'm writing now and that's the one I'm taking around now. I get to a point where I can make a movie for a bigger budget, I'll do it if I maintain the same level of control and if I don't I won't. It's just too much time to have you know some dude say, "I thought this scene was boring, I think you should cut it out. " Well I think you should, you know - no. That's the way that works, yeah.
Beth Accomando: Well good to hear, glad to hear that.
S. Craig Zahler: Trying to please everybody is a really bad way.
Beth Accomando: Yes
S. Craig Zahler: Like I start with making something that I like and then I figure people who have like minded taste, let's see if those people like it and then you know, then kind of go from there. I want people to like what I do, but I'm not making creative choices so that more people like what I do. That's the difference.
Beth Accomando: Well also then at least you sit, make one person happy, if you make the film you want. At least -
S. Craig Zahler: Correct, correct if Bone Tomahawk was a disaster and came out and it was panned and did financially terribly and was the [indiscernible] [0:53:08] directed and you'd say, “well I put in all that time and made something that I liked. " Maybe someday it will be discovered, maybe it won't be, but that's, that's the thing. That's why, that's why I've had some difficulties in Hollywood when they - when development starts pushing pieces that I wrote into pieces that I wouldn't write or wouldn't be the want to see, but I guess it’s easy for me to walk away if I can generate more. You know it’s like well - no - this idea will cross the line of see its starting to become bad. Or losing the core of it so you know that's what I do and I can just keep generating material, but yeah its - it will be, it will be crazy.
Like probably in a month, it’s going to be twenty seven pieces and that's just a - to the only one that got made was the one I made. And it wouldn't got made in Belgium I - you know by a French director with Englishman, an Australian pretending to be American. Like to have that many material - pieces out in the system. I wonder. I don't know, I actually don't know enough about the industry to know how often something like that happens. That amount of material, but you know. Keep producing and now at this point I should have, I should be able to get the resources to make movies at around this scale and I hope a little bit bigger.
Beth Accomando: Well I hope so and thank you very much for making time and I'm really looking forward to showing this film to an audience here in San Diego.
S. Craig Zahler: Cool, I hope they enjoy it and thanks again for your interest.
Beth Accomando: Thanks for listening to another edition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast. I'll have two special podcasts coming up. One one The Witch and another on the Oscar nominated documentary The Look of Silence. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or find new episodes on KPBS. org/junkiepodcast. So until our next film fix I'm Beth Accomando, your resident Cinema Junkie.
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place